China, which has been building up reefs to create man-made islands to stake out a territorial claim in the contested Spratlys Islands in the South China Sea, apparently is at it again.
According to an analysis of recent satellite photographs by the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Asia Maritime Transparency Institute, the Chinese seems to be constructing an airstrip on Mischief Reef.
In an article on the institute's website, Asia expert Gregory B. Poling says the images show the construction of a retaining wall along the northwest side of the reef, creating a rectangular area of about 1.86 square miles. Additionally, a cement plant has been set up, "indicating that significant construction is planned," according to Poling.
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The work on Mischief Reef resembles Chinese activity on two other augmented reefs –Fiery Cross, where China has nearly completed building an airfield, and Subi, where another one seems to be in the works. China also is building a fourth base in the Paracels islands to the north of the Spratlys.
As Discovery News' Eric Niller reported back in May, the man-made islands are intended to boost Chinese power in a stretch of the South China Sea between Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which have asserted claims in the area, as have Brunei and Malaysia. China claims most of the South China Sea, a shipping route with potentially lucrative energy resources under the ocean floor as well.
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Environmental experts say that making coral reefs into islands will have a disastrous effect on their ecosystems. "It's the worst thing that has happened to coral reefs in our lifetime," Marine biologist John McManus told the Washington Post in July. But it's unclear how durable the man-made islands will be, since they'll be subjected to powerful waves and wind without a nearby landmass to mitigate the effect.
In July, the Philippines decided to counter the Chinese by reviving the former U.S. naval base in Subic Bay as a military installation. That would allow the Philippines' air force and navy to challenge the Chinese. Vietnam also has outposts in the Spratlys, where in May its soldiers played counterparts from the Philippines in a soccer match.
In another gesture of defiance, Vietnam announced in June that it would stage a six-day "sovereignty cruise," in which Vietnamese citizens will be invited to sail the Spratlys. A Chinese cruise ship also has been visiting the area for years, and both nations have complained about each other's tourism.